The easy answer to Prince George’s ongoing downtown social problems is that there is no easy answer.
Close to 150 people jammed council chambers Monday to express their views, suggest solutions, and vent their frustration over the proliferation of homeless people downtown and accompanying issues such as drug use, mental health issues, and crime.
“We want to send a message that downtown Prince George is open for business,” said business owner Bernie Schneider, spokesperson for a group of downtown businesses who have banded together to push for help cleaning up downtown.
The group has printed a flyer promoting the downtown.
“We want our group of business owners to feel safe in their place of business, we want our workers to feel safe in their place of employment,” he said.
He said a “non-stop shoplifting” spree has to come to an end. He called for some kind of ad hoc mayor’s council to be formed to deal with the downtown issues and that the group also wants seat at that table.
Dawn Matte, who manages Ave Maria, stressed that the issues aren’t limited to the downtown core and that council has ignored the business community in dealing with the problems.
“The city partnering with Northern Health, partnering with the RCMP, and partnering with a great number of other groups of people,” she said. “The one that I did not hear (the city) is partnering is with its businesses.”
She said the problem is certainly getting worse.
“I grew up on Quince Street 25 years ago,” she said. “I know that the city used to be like. I remember being a terrified girl walking up and down that street. I would give anything to go back to those days. I am afraid for my employees who have to walk around the side of the business to enter.”
She said the costs have increased for the business, which must now deal with the mental health of its employees “because they have to pick up bodily waste, are terrified to go into work because they’ve witnessed a knife fight outside the door or myself and my daughter being threatened by a man who had a homemade axe in his backpack. It’s scary.”
Korey Pateman of the Community Partners Addressing Homelessness said it’s a complex problem and was disappointed on the short notice of the meeting. She added a year ago the association has had about four meetings with stakeholders downtown but weren’t able to continue the meetings.
“We recognized then there is a need for leadership and resources to have a collaborative approach,” she said. “… I really urge council to make a commitment to a collaborative approach with all the partners who are in this room, but also the partners who aren’t here. We need to hear from the disadvantaged and those who are struggling … I’ve long advocated for social issues getting the same treatment as economic and environment issues.”
Connie Abe, executive director of AWAC, which housed 83 homeless people last year, said they discovered some homeless people refuse shelter and go back to living on the street.
Tori Burham, who works downtown as a nurse, says compassion is needed when dealing with people downtown.
“We have to recognize that these are people we’re talking about and everybody deserves dignity and respect,” she said. “What I would like to see is proper consultation, not only with stakeholders, but with our friends downtown, our vulnerable population, the people who are using these services.”
Council heard from 35 presenters over the four-hour meeting and, in the end, decided develop an ad hoc committee to come up with some recommendations for dealing with the problems.
“We talk about the homeless and the drug addicts downtown as being victims,” said Coun. Brian Skakun. “But we also have victims in the business community who have been robbed, harassed, and beaten up … I’m challenged with the notion that because they’re homeless and drug addicts that they can do this. There’s no consequences for bad behaviour downtown, and they know that.”
He said he wants to see community policing downtown and more officers in the downtown area.
“How we get there, I don’t know,” he said.
Mayor Lyn Hall said one of the things he is grappling with is determining the city’s jurisdiction and homelessness and social issues are biggest problems facing the city.
He said when he ran for council and then for mayor, he was always asked what he’s going to do about downtown. The context then, however, was in terms of development, which has occurred.
Now when he asked ‘what are you going to do about downtown,’ the context is the social problems plaguing the city.
“That’s how the conversation has changed,” he said. “In one light, I can’t disregard the development but I also can’t disregard what goes on from a social perspective. I hear about it every day.”
The social issues are the biggest issue today.
“There’s not a lot of stuff that keeps me awake,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff on my mind when it comes to this community, obviously, but this does keep me awake. This is a tough, tough thing that we’re facing.”
He said other communities are facing the same problems and mayors and councillors are constantly sharing ideas of what works and what doesn’t.
“The drug overdoses and the people who are dying aren’t just happening on our streets,” he said. “They are happening in residences, they’re happening to people that perhaps you and I know and that troubles the heck out of me.”
City staff will develop terms of reference for the committee and report back to council in two weeks.
“This isn’t about who can build the best widget and who wants to take credit for it,” Hall said. “It’s about who can roll up their sleeves and help out.”